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Thomas Rennie Dealt with His Father's Death and His Own Mental Breakdown by Making a Book

The project started as an obsession during a manic episode, and became a catalog of grief and bipolar disorder.

by Wendy Syfret
15 July 2015, 5:50am

All photos by Thomas Rennie

Thomas Rennie is a designer, artist, photographer, and nice guy. In 2011 he was living in New York when he got news his dad, Andrew Rennie, was dying. He came home to spend time with a very large, and sometime opaque, figure in his life.

After his father's death, Thomas set out on a ten-month motorcycle journey across the US and Mexico. He took photos of everything and tried to manage his grief. When he returned home the weight of loss, his ever growing appetite for weed, and unchecked bipolar disorder began to press on him.

Andrew Rennie hang-gliding as a young man

I've been friends with Tom for almost a decade, and was one of the many who witnessed the following months as he began to unravel. The idea of artistic temperaments shifting between psychotic and enlightened is played out. But after so many years with Tom, his big claims, luminescent ideas, and at times random comments, I was slow to notice he wasn't OK.

Luckily his family and closest friends did and he was hospitalized after a psychotic episode. He spent five weeks in hospital, and during this manic period an idea for a book emerged. Always one to keep a visual record, he began intensively collecting and documenting everything that was happening to him, certain it all carried some higher meaning.

Drawings made while in hospital

When Tom got well he decided to make a book, and the result is a beautiful, at times upsetting, account of death, grief, and coming undone.

It's an exploration of his lost father, a journal of a road trip, a disjointed series of thoughts, drawings, and correspondences between friends and families. Even when he was at his most unwell, Tom's work still carries a dreamlike quality. His long, disjointed emails occasionally offer a phrase or thought that's so true you have to stop reading.

It ends with his recovery, and a feeling that he and everything is different now. He called it Riding Around and Getting It.

'Riding Around and Getting It' is made up of photos, drawings, letters, screenshots, and objects.

VICE: Hey Tom. Did you have any sense of this book when you started the trip?
Thomas Rennie: No, I only got a camera halfway across the country. But I wanted to do something with the photos and stuff. When I went into the psychosis I became obsessed with the idea of the book.

You actually got the idea in hospital?
The idea, yes. But it was so morphed I got to a place where telling the story was the most important thing. And the book all of a sudden was the world's biggest project. I was gathering content from everything, I was also paranoid I was going to forget everything. So yeah, it was kind of hard to start it.

Tom travelled through the US and Mexico.

Did that obsessive collecting help when it came time to pulling it together? You would have had a mountain of content.
When it came time to actually lay it out the content was just everywhere, and it was just pages of stuff and screenshots. In a way it was kind of like being a curator of my own crap.

Did it feel cathartic to wade through it all when you were well?
It was confronting—but cathartic and confronting can be the same thing. There're parts of it I could only read once. I had to show bits to Andrea (Tom's girlfriend) and ask, "Can you go through this and tell me if there's anything I should not publish?" It was a nerve-wracking and stressful process, but in the long run it's paying off.

The book includes series of Facebook messages Tom sent to friends in a manic state.

It's only been out a few days, but people's reactions have been pretty emotional.
I didn't expect this extent of a response, or how personally people connected with it. I had people—good friends and people I've never spoken to—message me saying, I'm so proud of you, thank you, this is my similar story, and my similar struggle. It was amazing, and overwhelming, and beautiful. I'm still kind of getting used to it.

It's interesting how so many barriers are being broken down, but we still really struggle to talk personally about mental illness.
Even I am. I don't have the words to describe it, reach out to people to make them comfortable but not overwhelm them. But like anything, when something starts to enter popular conversation it starts to change. That's the first part.

It's strange talking about your trip now. When you were on it—even though I knew what you'd been through with your dad—it was hard to not feel jealous. You've always been able to make things seem magical. How did you feel, being on the road like that?
I did have an incredible time being in nature. Especially camping. In general everyday was just about getting to the next stop. That was enough purpose to keep going.

It was a distraction so I could forget, and didn't need to think and process what I needed to when you go through grief. Instead it was like: Do cool stuff, keep going forward, and that was enough for me at that time. In general, it was happy/sad.

How was it coming home and losing that velocity?
That's the thing, when you go on a huge trip you get passionate and think, I wanna take all this home. You're so excited to start new things, and do new projects. Then I got home and it was a big change. To have been going pretty hard, and before that I was in New York working and really focused, then suddenly you're home and that's lost. I didn't know what to do, and I ended up withdrawing into a dark little house and I just slept a lot.

Tom's living room days before being hospitalized.

When you talk about projects, this book has been a vein through so many recent stages of your life, when you finished it was there a fear of, What am I without this book?
That probably would have been a fear if I was in the mindset I was. But in a way I'm happy that in these past months I've felt the momentum of putting it out, to see what the next one's going to be. It feels good. I need that in my life. I need direction. I need to be working on projects. You need a reason not to dwell on your own sorrow, and in your own thoughts, and get lost.

This has a happy ending, you got better, and in hindsight your recovery was pretty swift. Why do you think you pulled out of this when so many people don't?
It's the love from all my family and friends, and my luck of the draw. I grew up on a little hobby farm in Flinders. I went to a private school that encouraged creativity and set me up for a successful career. When I moved out to go to a good uni my folks could help me out so I could spend cash a few nights a week going out and making friends.

The idea for the book came about while in a manic state.

After my attack, I went into deep depression, I was bedridden. I couldn't work, but my rent got paid. So I could chill and concentrate on getting well, just take baby steps each day. Soon I was slightly comfortable talking to people again and I creeped back into working. Working was a big part of my recovery, I needed a daily purpose to get out of bed.

Now flip that. Say I was born into foster homes and battled my way through schools that lacked resources. I turned 18, I was on my own. Uni wasn't an option and I had to work. I didn't go out, I didn't make hundreds of beautiful friends.

Then after some trauma I have my first attack. I'm released from hospital. I'm scared, confused, and embarrassed. Even if I could lift myself out of bed I can't go to work because my boss thinks I'm a psycho. My rent isn't paid.

I fail getting public housing or support because my shitty education didn't include navigating bureaucracy. I drift through shelters, and end up on the streets. With all those struggles, the path to recovery isn't a path, it's a jagged glass cliff face.

Tom will be launching Riding Around and Getting It on July 23 at The Good Copy in Melbourne. Sales of the book on the night will go to the Black Dog Institute, which works to improve the lives of individuals affected by mood disorders.

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